Sunday, October 28, 2012

How Social Media is Becoming Essential for Election Monitoring

Social media is clearly playing an integral role in the political discourse surrounding elections. Nonetheless, another role that social media is playing to a less visible extent is increasing citizen participation in monitoring the conduct and administration of elections. International treaties and conventions have explicitly emphasized that Free and Fair Elections and Human Rights are fundamental principles of Democracy. To guarantee the protection of citizens' right to cast their votes in a free and fair democratic elections, election monitoring has developed over the past two decades to become an instrumental component of any election - even in advanced democracies like the U.S. and Europe. 

Election monitoring is normally conducted on various levels: (a) domestic - where by citizens and local non-governmental organizations may witness the proceedings of months and weeks leading up to Election day as well as the conduct on the day; and (b) regional and international - where regional institutions and international organizations may recruit long-term and short-term international observers who are trained to assess the conduct and administration of the electoral process based on national legislation and the international minimum standards for free and fair elections

As the practice of election monitoring has been developing over the years, technology is key in enhancing the efficiency of observation missions. Observers have to cover large samples, across often large geographic areas, capture data from polling centers,  report observations to the central operations room - where the data is collected, organized, analyzed and followed by periodically released public statements on the overall conduct of election across the country. is a great example of the growing role social media can play in crowd sourcing and information gathering for election observation; where average citizens (not necessarily organizations) can actively engage in organizing committees and regional groups to monitor elections in specific regions and report on election violations using interactive online maps. Ushahidi is an online platform that aims at providing easy-to-use online tools for sharing information across the world especially in times of disasters or large-scale community organizing. Watch the platform video

Can you imagine how much power people would have if everyone on Twitter and Facebook and other social networks is gathering information and publicizing it to the world on the conduct of election? What if the whole world was able to see, instantaneously, any election violation happening at any polling center? This, then, would be a truly transparent election in a democracy of actively engaged citizens. This might not sound as significant in an advanced democracy like the U.S., however, there still is much to say, or so it seems, about the conduct of election - at least by people like Sarah Silverman.

Some of Sarah Silverman's famous youtube videos (although clearly partisan) are still utilizing social media to report on possible obstacles impeding citizens' right to cast their votes. A video I recently watched by Silverman was about efforts taken by more than 12 States to avoid voting fraud by passing stricter laws on voter ID's accepted at polling stations. (Please excuse the language and references made in the attached video)

The more citizens, especially eligible voters, are aware of their rights and the internationally recognized minimum standards for the conduct of free and fair elections - the more effectively they are able to stop any election violation, to report on misconduct, and to play the most important role citizens can play in an election: legitimize (or delegitimize) the process; procedurally and politically. 

In recent elections conducted in Tunisia and Egypt, young citizens and domestic election observation coalitions were increasingly relying on social media to inform the world about the developments pertaining to the conduct of elections. The whole world was able to read through the observations of active citizens who were collecting data, and using Twitter and Facebook  to share with the world(iWatch Tunisie and EASD in Egypt (Photo on the right - source) are some examples of using social media in monitoring elections). They were indeed protecting the integrity of the Election by ensuring that it was truly (and for the first time in decades) free and fair. If we look at some of the recently conducted elections around the world, one could definitely see how far social media can go in exposing misconduct in election - take the last Russian Presidential Election. Hours after the polls had opened on Election day, Twitter was flooding with photos and reports on carousel voting, fraud and vote buying. (For more on this topic: "Russians Fight Twitter and Facebook Battles Over Putin Election" - The Guardian) Although election results did not recognize such reports, social media was still a main tool used by Russian election watchdogs to organize international advocacy campaigns and get global support.  

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